Women in Nuclear Security: How NTI’s Joan Rohlfing and Urvashi Rathore Break Barriers

Women continue to be underrepresented in the field of nuclear security, and when they join it, they often find it difficult to excel or, in some cases, even be heard. To examine this disparity and explore ways to empower women in the field and make it more welcoming to female experts, CRDF Global held a panel discussion this month, “Breaking Barriers: Women in Nuclear Security.” Dozens of women (and a smattering of men) attended from across government agencies, embassies, think tanks, advocacy groups and academia.

NTI president Joan Rohlfing and 2017 CRDF Global Robin Copeland Memorial Fellow Urvashi Rathore, who is interning at NTI for the summer, were invited to share their experiences building careers in nuclear security. Kathy Crandall Robinson of Women in International Security also joined the panel, as did Paul Longsworth, former NNSA Deputy Administrator and Vice President of Fluor Corporation. Susan King, director of the nuclear security program at CRDF Global, moderated the panel.

King opened the discussion by noting that “diversity breeds innovation.” She challenged panelists to think about how the nuclear security community can break down stereotypes that impede women in the workplace.

Drawing attention to a method used by female staff at the White House, Rohlfing suggested that women should make a point to amplify each other’s voices in the workplace when they notice a colleague’s point of view not receiving the attention it deserves. Saying, “I really want to hear from so-and-so about this,” is one way to do it, Rohlfing said. Longsworth noted that men also have a role to play, advising them to be aware of instances when women’s ideas are discounted or ignored in meetings. 

The panelists agreed that the presence of female role models in senior leadership positions is crucial to encouraging women to join and stay in the nuclear security field and that mentorship is extremely important. “Finding ways to acknowledge each other’s expertise and leadership” helps, noted Crandall Robinson. In the absence of women in senior positions, “men can mentor women, too,” Longsworth said.

Rathore recalled being questioned by peers in India for aspiring to work on nuclear issues and being told that the field was “for men.” She hopes to spread awareness of the possibilities for women in the nuclear and radiological security fields and to inspire more women from India to consider it a career option.

Although some progress has been made to better integrate women into the nuclear security space, we “still have a long way to go in shifting our culture,” Rohlfing noted. Many women, in and outside of the nuclear security field, suffer from “imposter syndrome,” or feelings that their “accomplishments are just luck or deceit, and they're in over their heads.” To combat this feeling, Rohlfing suggests women surround themselves with supportive peers and mentors who will provide positive feedback when it’s deserved. Longsworth compared overcoming the feeling to running cross country: “If you push your body, you’ll be amazed at what you can do. Your professional life should be the same.”

Read more about the work and careers of two of NTI’s female experts: Dr. Elizabeth Cameron, senior director for global biological policy and programs, and Samantha Pitts-Kiefer, director of NTI’s global nuclear policy program.

July 17, 2017
Authors
Meaghan Webster
Meaghan Webster

Communications Manager

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